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Australia's last reporters flee China over 'disturbing' pressure

Two journalists have arrived in Australia after spending days sheltering in diplomatic missions. Chinese authorities had sought to question them about a "national security case" likely tied to a fellow journalist's case

Two Australian journalists fled China on Monday night after Chinese authorities sought to interview them, according to the Australian government and their employers. They were the last two accredited Australian journalists in China, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Last week, the Australian embassy in China recommended Beijing-based Bill Birtles of the ABC leave the country following the arrest of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for Chinese state-broadcaster CGTN.

However, the day before his scheduled departure, Chinese police visited his residence and informed him that he was banned from traveling until he spoke with authorities about a "national security case."

Fellow Australian journalist Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) had a similar encounter that same evening. Both journalists were initially asked about Cheng, who remains detained without charge.

Read more: China's lack of press freedom causes problems for the world

'Regrettable and disturbing'

Australian diplomats negotiated the two journalists' departure in return for allowing Chinese authorities question the journalists in their presence. Birtles and Smith sheltered in Australian diplomatic missions prior to departing.

"Our embassy in Beijing and Consulate-General in Shanghai engaged with Chinese Government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia," said Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a statement.

ABC and AFR both condemned the pressure placed on both journalists, saying it undermined already-tense relations between Australia and China.

"This incident targeting two journalists, who were going about their normal reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a cooperative relationship between Australia and China," said AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and editor Paul Bailey. 

Over the past two years, Australian-Chinese relations have deteriorated over allegations that Beijing was asserting political and economic influence within Australia, including in political circles.

Read more: Opinion: Journalists' expulsion a sign of China's insecurity

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ls/msh (AP, Reuters)